Calibrating Our View of Mission

The term “missional” has come to prominence in recent years in application to the ministry or mission of the local church especially. As is the case with any such terminology, there is a great deal of variety in how this concept is understood and applied. One of the demands this makes on us as thoughtful people is to make sure we understand what we mean by the term so that we can put it to work for us as we do ministry and execute mission. The first two books on our reading list this year help us do this by providing complementary, but different, views of the mission of the church.

In the part of the church in which I participate, the average person would likely respond to the question “What is the mission of the church?” with an answer that centered on the evangelistic task. They would say something like “getting people saved” or “bringing people into the church” or other similar language. We get a little uncomfortable with the language of social justice or care for the environment. In our “conservative” world such ideas feel a little too “liberal” for us. Are we right about that? Is our view of mission too narrow? That is what these first two books are intended to help us think through, and perhaps challenge us to think differently about.

In The Mission of God’s People, Christopher Wright is asking “‘What does the Bible as a whole in both testaments have to tell us about why the people of God exist and what it is they are supposed to be and do in the world?’ What is the mission of God’s people?” (Wright, 17) This book follows Wright’s previous volume The Mission of God, which he says argues for reading the whole Bible through the lens of God’s grand mission. (Wright, 17) Turning to how this view plays out in the lives of God’s people, Wright presents a bigger conception of mission than many of us will have considered. He provides us a helpful definition of how he defines the term “mission” as it informs his writing and practice. By mission Wright means, “all that God is doing in his great purpose for the whole of creation and all that he calls us to do in cooperation with that purpose.” (Wright, 25) With this God-sized view of mission in mind, Wright helps us see that the mission of God’s people includes the evangelistic task, but it also is connected to God’s bigger project, the redemption of all creation. This is what makes this book helpful—it stretches our view of mission.

Enter Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert and their book What is the Mission of the Church? Their book is written from a pastoral perspective, rather than Wright’s more academic approach, but fundamentally asks the same question as Wright. In their exploration of the question, DeYoung and Gilbert provide the reader with two very helpful observations. In the conversation, some might say debate, current in the church about the meaning of the term “missional,” DeYoung and Gilbert describe the two primary points of view as “zoom-lens people” and “wide-angle people.” (DeYoung and Gilbert, 93ff) In this system, they would put Wright in the wide-angle category, and thus some of their book is a critique of his. As noted above, the circles I have found myself in would fall into the zoom-lens category. DeYoung and Gilbert point the reader toward the fact that the New Testament writers use both ends of the range with equal facility; sometimes going wide, sometimes zooming in.

Toward the end of the book, DeYoung and Gilbert also make a helpful distinction between the activities of the individual Christian and the church. They note that the church has a different, narrower group of tasks and priorities focused on “proclamation, witness, and disciple making.” (DeYoung and Gilbert, 233) They argue that though there are certainly aspects of the wide-angle view that influence these tasks and priorities, the wide-angle view is more applicable to the day-to-day lives of individual believers. Their way of talking about this that the church’s focus should be on those things that more directly advance these three aspects of mission. (DeYoung and Gilbert, 235) These may or may not include activities that are in the broad categories of social justice, for which they provide a very helpful definition in chapter six, environmental care, and seeking human flourishing.

These two books, especially read together, are helpful tools for challenging our thinking about mission. For many of you, Wright will challenge you to expand your view of what mission means, showing you the view through the wide-angle lens. For others, DeYoung and Gilbert will challenge you to zoom back in to the centrality of the gospel in the mission of the church, a point on which all these authors agree. God is on a mission, as Wright notes, and we have a role in it, as DeYoung and Gilbert emphasize and is summarized in the Great Commission—making disciples.

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